WASHINGTON, George. Autograph letter signed ("G:o Washington") to Bushrod Washington, 9 November 1787. 4 pages, large folio, expert, discreet mends to creases.
"THE POWER UNDER THE CONSTITUTION WILL ALWAYS BE WITH THE PEOPLE"
THE MOST IMPORTANT WASHINGTON LETTER TO EVER COME TO AUCTION, as he makes an impassioned argument in support of the adoption of the proposed new Constitution. He makes this case to his nephew Bushrod, who was slated to be a delegate in the Virginia state ratifying convention. Writing just two months after the Framers drafted the document, Washington takes on the already vocal opposition, most of which he considers baseless and bogus, designed only "to rouse the apprehensions of the ignorant and the unthinking." The question of the Constitution, he tells Bushrod, boils down to a simple proposition, "which the understanding of almost every man is competent" to decide: "namely--is it best for the States to unite, or not to unite?"
Some opponents would never come around, but those with mixed feelings about the document "would do well to consider," Washington points out, "that it does not lye with one State, nor with a minority of the States, to superstruct a Constitution for the whole. The seperate interests, as far as it is practicable, must be consolidated--and local views as far as the general good will admit, must be attended to." Every State will have some objections, he concedes. But the Framers had wisely pegged nine of the thirteen states as the sufficient number to adopt the charter. "What line of conduct they would advise it to adopt, if nine other States should accede to it, of which I think there is little doubt? Would they recommend that it should stand on its own basis--seperate & distinct from the rest? Or would they connect it with Rhode Island, or even say two others, checkerwise, & remain with them as outcasts from the Society, to shift for themselves? or will they advise a return to our former dependence on Great Britain for their protection & support?"
Of course the Constitution was imperfect, he concedes, but the ability to amend it was the key point to remember. "The warmest friends to and the best supporters of the Constitution," he writes, "do not contend that it is free from imperfections; but these were not to be avoided, and they are convinced if evils are likely to flow from them, that the remedy must come thereafter; because, in the present moment it is not to be obtained. And as there is a Constitutional door open for it, I think the people (for it is with them to judge) can, as they will have the aid of experience on their side, decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendments [which] shall be found necessary, as ourselves; for I do not conceive that we are more inspired--have more wisdom--or possess more virtue than those who will come after us. The power under the Constitution will always be with the people."
The power rested with the people--but powers there must be: "It is agreed on all hands that no government can be well administered without powers." Anti-constitution pamphleteers were branding the proposed new federal government as a tyrannical monster. Washington thinks these arguments both absurd and dishonest: "whilst many ostensible reasons are held out against the adoption of [the Constitution] the true ones are yet behind the Curtain; not being of a nature to appear in open day... No man is a warmer advocate for proper restraints, and wholesome checks in every department of government than I am; but neither my reasoning, nor my experience, has yet been able to discover the propriety of preventing men from doing good, because there is a possibility of their doing evil."
Washington's eight hard years as commander-in-chief left deep, bitter impressions of what it was like to wage a war with a weak, fractious, and uncooperative national government behind him. The trauma of Valley Forge and the later, equally disastrous, winter encampment at Morristown, convinced him that a better, stronger system had to be created. Now, with the war over, Washington watched in rising horror as the centripetal tendencies built into the Articles of Confederation made the States even more self-centered and less cooperative than they had been during the War.
The outbreak of Shay's Rebellion in August 1786 forcibly underlined the vulnerability and weakness of the existing government. To his great alarm, Washington heard that in some quarters, a monarchy was being broached as a viable alternative to the existing chaos. After eight-years of putting his life on the line to rid America of its king, this talk of a monarchy was indeed a bitter pill. Washington's conviction grew that a change must be made. That "it is necessary to revise and amend the articles of Confederation, I entertain no doubt," he told John Jay. "Something must be done, or the fabrick will fall, for it certainly is tottering" (Washington to John Jay, 18 May 1786, Fitzpatrick 28:431).
At Washington's urging, Virginia took the lead in calling for a national convention, and when delegates to the Constitutional Convention were chosen, Washington was named one of the Virginia delegates, in spite of his frequent protestations not to serve again in government. After initially declining the appointment, he eventually acceded to the blandishments of James Madison and Governor Edmund Randolph and joined the delegation. "I am again brought," he marveled, "contrary to my public declaration and intention, on a publick theatre..." When the Federal Convention met in Philadelphia in May, he was unanimously chosen as its presiding officer. Given Washington's gravitas and national prestige, it was an obvious choice, one calculated to add luster to the convention and to enhance the public's assessment of its final product: a new frame of government. Washington's actual participation in the deliberations was very slight--he was not accustomed to parliamentary debate--and he is on record as having delivered only a single brief comment on the day the draft was finished. It was his presence that mattered.
The day after the completed Constitution was endorsed by the delegates, as he prepared to leave Philadelphia, Washington posted copies of the Constitution to Thomas Jefferson--serving as Minister to France--and to the Marquis de Lafayette. Clearly, he was already viewing with trepidation the complex ratification process, aware that it was likely to be prolonged and at times rancorous. To Lafayette, he confided that the Constitution "is now a Child of fortune, to be fostered by some and buffeted by others. What will be the General opinion on, or the reception of it, is not for me to decide, nor shall I say anything for or against it; if it be good I suppose it will work its way good; if bad, it will recoil on the Framers..." Washington to Lafayette, 18 September 1787, Fitzpatrick 29:276-277).
Despite this assertion of objective neutrality, Washington was of course unable and unwilling to remain aloof from the crescendo of discussion and debate over ratification. A few days after his return to the shores of the Potomac, he took pains to write a circular letter to three eminent Virginians whose support, he knew, might be crucial to his state's decision on ratification. To Patrick Henry, Thomas Nelson and Benjamin Harrison he confessed that "I wish the Constitution...had been made more perfect, but I sincerely believe it is the best that could be obtained at this time; and, as a constitutional door is opened for amendment, the adoption of it under the present circumstances of the Union, is in my opinion desirable." Underlining the urgency of the crisis, he observed that "the political concerns of this Country are...suspended by a thread..." (Washington to Henry et al, 24 September 1787, Fitzpatrick 29:278).
As expected, the process of ratification proved to be contentious and hard-fought. Six states ratified between December 1787 and February 1788, including two big ones--the economic powerhouses of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Only three states more had to approve for the Constitution to be ratified, but the votes of the two biggest states--New York and Virginia--hung in the balance. New Hampshire was the ninth state to approve, on 21 June 1788, but all realized that even with nine states agreed, the rejection of either Virginia or New York would practically speaking doom the union. But thanks to Washington's energetic efforts in Virginia (and those of his former aide-de-camp, Hamilton, in New York) these two lynchpin states voted Yes: Virginia did so on 25 June 1788, by a mere 10 votes, 89 delegates in favor, 79 opposed. New York ratified on 26 July by the even more precarious margin of just three votes, 30-27. But it was enough.
Provenance: Corbin Washington (1765-1799), son of John Augustine Washington, nephew of George Washington , married to Hannah Lee (1766 to 1801); Bushrod Corbin Washington, son of the above (1790-1851) married Anna Maria Thomasina Blackburn (1790 to 1833); Thomas Blackburn Washington, son of the above (1813-1854), married Rebecca Janet Cunningham (1820 to 1890) - she, Rebecca, married as second husband Dr Edward Syle; Anna Maria Thomasina Blackburn Washington (1854-1909), daughter of the above (ie of Thomas Blackburn Washington and Rebecca Janet Cunningham); married (later Sir) James Alfred Ewing (1855-1935), noted engineer and physicist; the present owner, by descent.
Published in Papers, Confederation Series, ed., W. W. Abbot, 5:420-425.